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Inside the fire: Smoke is no joke at training academy

Flammable liquid fires often get big, very quickly, like this one. Recruits at the fire training academy use hoses with foam attachments. - Kyra Low/The Mirror
Flammable liquid fires often get big, very quickly, like this one. Recruits at the fire training academy use hoses with foam attachments.
— image credit: Kyra Low/The Mirror

I thought I was prepared.

Then the wall of smoke hit me and I couldn’t think at all.

About two months ago, I started following two recruits from South King Fire and Rescue as they went through the fire academy. It was during one of these trips that Capt. Kevin Body suggested I see what it is like for firefighters entering a burning building.

I thought it was a great idea — something I had never done before. I figured it would probably be like the smoke trailers that the fire department took to my elementary school. The kind where they throw in a bit of the fog used in parties so the kids can practice crawling to the exit.

This gentle rolling smoke, with a large gap between the floor and the smoke, was set in my mind.

That is until the doors opened and the smoke quickly came curling out, hungry for an escape.

Once the doors were fully open, I could see the wall of smoke coming at me: A solid, dark gray mass that went all the way to the ground and was not the friendly white smoke of my childhood drill. I began to gulp air through my air mask, bringing the sound of Darth Vader into the room with me.

For a moment, the panic set in. I began to weigh my pride vs. the urge to rip the mask off my face and run screaming down the stairs.

Pride won.

Acting much calmer than I felt, I nodded to the other firefighters that I was ready — and stepped into the darkness.

Now when I say darkness, I mean darkness. Instantly, I was blind. Capt. Body, who just a scant second before had been right next to me, vanished. I couldn’t even see parts of my own body.

I’ve got a friend who starts a joke with "You know how when you lose one sense, you gain a superpower?" I was not gaining any superpowers here. The sight was gone. I couldn’t smell anything but the smoke. I couldn’t hear anything over my pounding heart and the sound of my breath coming quickly through the respirator. This made me realize that I should probably slow down — I didn’t want to run out of air in the building.

I began holding my breath, which didn’t work so well, either.

Slowly the panic decreased. We began to make our way down the hall into a room. Without the sense of sight, I learned, firefighters must keep one hand on a wall to guide them.

I wasn’t very good at using the wall and still ran into two doors, three walls, a bed and a chair during my little adventure. Those boots have steel toes for more than one reason.

We made our way through two rooms, into another hallway, then up a set of stairs to the hotel rooms prop, where firefighters can practice counting doors and rooms in a rescue attempt like they would should a hotel catch on fire, trapping occupants. I made my way through the rooms, then the state training officer asked me a question I did not expect:

“So can you get us back to where we started?”

It was a case of the blind leading the, well, not-so-blind because they were used to it.

I stood there for a moment, gathering my bearings as Capt. Body asked if I could tell which way was the front of the building. I pointed to my right and, surprise, I was right. (Really, it was a big surprise. I am horrible at directions. I almost always turn the wrong way coming out of a store in the mall, and I still check to see which hand makes the L when people give me driving directions.)

Now, just because I could tell you the general direction of where I needed to go did not mean I could get us back.

Remember those stairs? I didn’t remember too well and ran into a wall (that’s four) while trying to find them. Then I learned that going down stairs backward when you can’t remember how many steps there are is very scary.

Finally, after a couple more wrong turns and the kicking of a table, I made it back to the beginning, heading out to the fresh air with a slightly dented pride — and a much higher respect for firefighters, who in my mind, have developed those extra superpowers.

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